Joliet Catholic’s Johnson named September Prep Athlete of Month

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No two football backgrounds are exactly the same.

Players and their families are all unique, and their motivations for choosing a school vary.

At Joliet Catholic, though, tradition always seems to be a factor, the 13 state championships, the too-long-to-list names of great players past, the recent run of star running backs.

Not for Michael Johnson.

"Even in eighth grade, I didn't know anything about JCA," he said. "I just turned up here."

And now he's part of the lore.

With a powerful, experienced group of linemen paving the way, Johnson has been running wild and the Hilltoppers are a dominant 5-0.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior has rushed for 1,076 yards and 19 touchdowns on 108 carries, adding 11 receptions for 325 yards and five scores. If he keeps it up, the 14th state championship Joliet Catholic has been waiting nearly a decade for could be in its grasp.

Johnson is the Tribune/WGN-9 Athlete of the Month for September.

"He was always fast, but what he's doing now is incredible," said offensive lineman Ze'Veyon Furcron, who grew up with Johnson in Lockport. "Knowing Michael, I thought he was going to talk a lot. But he handles his business. He has been humble."

"He is always grateful to us," senior lineman Tyler Witt said. "He is never a guy that says, 'I put the team on my back.' "

Johnson's father, Michael Johnson Sr., was a basketball standout at Lockport in the early-to-mid 1990s, and in a way, the younger Johnson's football career started on the basketball court.

Tom Gruben, a youth football coach and former Joliet Catholic standout, happened to watch Johnson play basketball in fifth grade and saw a running back in shorts and a tank top.

"He (Gruben) said I want this kid to play on my football team," Johnson Sr. said. "I was like, 'I want him to play basketball. One day I came home and his mom put him on the football team.' "

Basketball continued to be Johnson's priority, but the family trusted Gruben enough to take his advice and check out Joliet Catholic a couple years later.

When they got there, the elder Johnson couldn't believe his eyes. He saw JCA basketball coach Joe Gura. The same Joe Gura that coached Johnson Sr. during his tenure at Lockport from 1988-99.

"I didn't even know he was still a coach," Johnson Sr. said. "I thought he moved out of town. He coached my brother and all my cousins. He's a really good guy.

"He said, 'Mike has to be on the [basketball] team. I will take care of him like I took care of you.' "

Johnson Jr. was convinced he wouldn't play either sport again during the painful rehab from surgery for a meniscus tear the summer before his sophomore year, but he was wrong on both counts.

It wasn't until last fall, when he rushed for about 800 yards and scouts began taking note, that he decided being good at two sports might prevent him from being great at one.

"It was hard telling my dad and Joe Gura I wasn't going to play basketball any more, but I decided this is something I want to do," Johnson said. "I still had that feeling for basketball, but I needed to get into the weight room. That helped me get my weight up and maintain my speed."

By this point, the elder Johnson was a football convert.

He used Google to educate himself on speed training, and his son became a fixture at one of the staples of Joliet Catholic football — Rudy's Gym in Shorewood, owned by JCA strength coach Francis Ruettiger, brother of "Rudy."

"I got way stronger," Johnson said. "I squatted 620 and threw up (benched) 320. Our team is strong. Witt threw up 425 and squatted seven-something. We got strong as a team, spending all day at Rudy's. If someone isn't there, we call him up and say 'Where you at? We're going to get started. Then we wait for him to start.' "

Johnson, as a football player, got smarter too.

His highlight films are full of slow-developing runs, as he anticipates where his linemen are going to be and cuts perfectly off the blocks.

"On screens, he gets right behind you and he'll grab the back of your jersey and he'll push you right in to somebody," Witt said.

Now it's up to colleges to catch up to him. Mid-American Conference schools are showing interest, and he'll have plenty of FCS options as well.

"Freshman year he had the problem of outrunning his blocks," Furcron said. "I'd get on him, 'Mike wait until we get there.' As the years went on, he got better and better. Last year and especially this year, you can definitely tell the difference."

Mike Helfgot is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.